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Metro Prosecutors Ramp Up Pursuit of Drug Dealers in Overdose Cases

Thursday, October 26, 2017  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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From shorner@pioneerpress.com | Pioneer Press

 Jennafer Meyers is accused of paying an Andover man who fixed her laptop with prescription pain-medicine last December.

Four years earlier, Dennis Rivers took methadone pills and crack cocaine to his girlfriend’s Inver Grove Heights apartment and the two got high.

In 2013, Jennifer Marie Johnson filled a syringe with some of the liquid methadone a doctor had prescribed for the Newport woman and gave it to her husband.

Beverly Burrell sold heroin to a couple in a Minneapolis parking lot on a September day in 2015.

Each case involved different people in different metro-area counties, but they also share devastating similarities. In each instance, the recipient of the drugs ended up dying of a fatal overdose, and the provider wound up facing murder charges.

They are just a few of the stories behind the rising number of third-degree murder cases being charged across the metro in recent years. Prosecutors attribute the increase to the opioid epidemic and enhancements in forensic science and technology that make it easier to establish a link between suppliers and overdose victims.

RAMSEY COUNTY CASE COULD BE A FIRST

While Ramsey County has been far from immune from the deadly consequences of drug use, the state’s second most populated county has only filed third-degree murder charges following fatal drug overdoses within the past 10 years, according to statistics provided by the county.

It is now aiming to get its first conviction in such a case as the trial for Victor Wayne Lynch begins this week. He is accused of causing the death of 28-year-old Trina Maurstad last October after giving her a “speedball” of heroin and methamphetamine after the two met up at a Roseville hotel, according to a criminal complaint.

With the trial underway, the Ramsey County attorney’s office declined to comment about its approach to prosecuting alleged suppliers of lethal drug doses. Part of it is undoubtedly based on the number of cases it is asked to consider, though.

Over the past 10 years, law enforcement agencies across Ramsey County have presented the county attorney with only nine such cases: three from St. Paul police, two from White Bear Lake, one from Roseville, one from New Brighton and one from the Ramsey County sheriff’s office, the county attorney’s office reported.

To put that in perspective, the county saw around 80 deaths from accidental drug overdoses in 2016 alone, 62 related to opiate use, according to data compiled by Drug Abuse Dialogues, a local consulting organization run by the former director of the state’s drug and alcohol abuse agency.

Comparatively, there were 37 opiate-related deaths in Ramsey County in 2013.

Of the nine fatal drug cases that made their way to the Ramsey County attorney’s desk in the past decade, only two resulted in charges of third-degree murder.

State statute dictates that anyone who “without intent to cause death, proximately causes the death of a human being by directly or indirectly, unlawfully selling, giving away, bartering, delivering, exchanging, distributing, or administering a controlled substance … is guilty” of third-degree murder.

Hennepin County has charged 23 defendants for such crimes in the past decade, according to the Hennepin County attorney’s office.

Anoka County charged 10 in that time period; Washington County six; and Dakota County three, according to data provided for this story.

Similar to Ramsey County, the number of charges is well below the number of fatal drug overdoses that have taken place over the past 10 years in the metro area.

Hennepin County reportedly alone had more than 200 fatalities from accidental drug overdoses last year, for example.

“We all know there are more drug-related deaths than we see for prosecution,” said Assistant Anoka County Attorney Paul Young. “Law enforcement is obviously making an internal determination that sometimes there is just not enough there to make a referral. … You simply have to go where the facts take you and, unfortunately, that is a place that doesn’t always allow for prosecution.”

CASES ARE ‘INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT’

If Washington County Attorney Pete Orput could, he would hold someone responsible every time someone dies of a drug overdose.

“The way I see if, if you kill one of my kids, you owe me for one dead kid and I want to collect,” Orput said. “I don’t mean to sound like a (jerk) … but that’s how I look at these cases.”

That hasn’t always been the case for those who work within the criminal justice system, Orput added.

“It used to be that cops would get called to a hotel and find someone with a needle in their arm and they would often go, ‘Well, that’s a real tragedy,’ and bag him up,” Orput said. “It’s been part of my job to convince them it’s not over … that we need to try and figure out who gave that poison to that boy who died, and that requires some deep investigation. … I assured the cops that if they put in the work, I’ll put in the work.”

A spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department called such cases “incredibly difficult.”

“Our investigators … have to determine whether the person willingly took the drugs, the quantity of drugs that was taken and whether there was a mix of drugs in the system at the time of death,” Steve Linders said. “Often times there is a mix of drugs, in which case determining what actually killed the person is difficult.”

Authorities also need to be able to trace the drug back to a source, which can be hard when users have multiple dealers or there is no witness, prosecutors said.

“Our principal witnesses in these cases are usually fellow buyers from the same source,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. Drug buyers and sellers typically “don’t like to talk about each other.”

A supplier’s motive or intent is irrelevant, though. As long as prosecutors can prove who unlawfully gave the drugs to a victim and that it was that drug that caused the person’s death, third-degree murder charges apply, county attorneys said.

OPIOID EPIDEMIC PUSHES PROSECUTORS TO SEEK CHARGES

Despite the hurdles, county attorneys are prosecuting such cases at a growing rate, according to county and state statistics.

Hennepin County charged two defendants with third-degree murder for providing drugs that led to fatal overdoses in 2007. The county has charged seven so far this year.

And only one such case was sentenced statewide 10 years ago, compared with 12 in 2016, according to data provided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

The increase is undoubtedly impacted by the rising number of lives claimed by the opioid epidemic, county attorneys said, but advances in technology and forensics also appear to play a role.

Cellphones make it easier to trace drugs back to dealers, for example, and medical examiners and toxicologists have more sophisticated means to parse out what role various substances found in a overdose victim’s system played in their death.

“Now cellphones are everybody’s filing cabinets,” Young said. “So investigators (can look at phone records and see) who did you talk to, when, what did you say.”

The aim is that prosecuting more of these cases will eventually lead to fewer fatal drug overdoses, Freeman said.

“As we send more of these (dealers) to prison for this and people know about it, word will travel on the street,” Freeman said.

He added that his office prioritizes cases that have a bigger public-safety impact, such as high-profile dealers with a reputation for selling bad drugs.

Burrell, for example — a dealer known as “Ice” on the street — has been linked to five fatal overdoses in the metro area, authorities say.

She was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison in two of the deaths, despite one victim’s father pleading for leniency for her on behalf of his other son who argued incarceration is not an effective strategy for dealing with drug addiction.

The situation becomes more muddied when you consider that many overdose victims willingly ingested the substance that killed them.

Still, prosecution is an important tool in a complicated landscape that should be used when possible, authorities say.

“I understand that addiction is a disease, but we also can’t ignore the crimes that are associated with addiction,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said.

ROSEVILLE OVERDOSE FOCUS OF TRIAL

In Ramsey County’s first trial of such a case, prosecutors will try to prove Lynch provided Maurstad with the drugs that a medical examiner determined killed her last fall.

 Heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl were found in her system after she was pronounced dead of a drug overdose Oct. 10, 2016, court records say.

 Police found her unconscious inside a room at the Red Roof Inn in Roseville after her friend saw her having a seizure and called 911, authorities say.

The friend and Lynch were also inside the room.

Though both initially denied Maurstad had taken drugs that night, her friend later told police Maurstad had taken a “speedball” of methamphetamine and heroin prepared and administered to her by Lynch, authorities say.

The 50-year-old Roseville man will get a chance to tell his side of the story this week.


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